Investing in Connections

Paul McAfee uses his experience, from mailrooms to marketing departments, to lead North Peace Savings & Credit Union into a new era of banking

Some people exaggerate when they say they started at the bottom and worked their way to the top, but not Paul McAfee. More than 30 years ago, North Peace Savings & Credit Union’s COO got his first job in the industry—sorting letters and parcels in a mailroom basement. From there, he spent time in almost every available role that exists in finance. And although he’s learned a lot along the way, McAfee say’s there’s one secret to his success—networking.

After his stint in the mailroom, McAfee worked in sales roles and corporate positions before moving into senior leadership. The journey, he says, helped him stay well connected across Canada and throughout the industry. At one stop, McAfee took over a marketing group and joined a national marketing association to develop his network beyond key suppliers. “I’ve always had a talent for people and a passion for communication,” McAfee explains. “I’ve had mentors, I’ve joined associations, I’ve leveraged those connections to bring value, and I try to be around many people that I can learn from.”

“In 2013, we won an innovation award in Canada for integration of video banking that enables teller transactions through video. We were the second financial group in Canada to bring that technology in. We see that people are looking for service outside normal hours, and we want to be able to deliver more services in more places with all our expertise to support all our members. We are looking for these changes that are coming, and we want to be on or even ahead of them. We’re small, so we can’t always be the innovator, but we can be a fast follower. We have our heads up.”

Four years ago, a headhunter (and a former colleague) asked McAfee to interview at North Peace. He was originally hired to lead sales, but upon discovering his experience with marketing, the credit union’s leaders added those responsibilities to his role. The hire was an important one for North Peace, a full-service financial organization that has served northeast British Columbia for more than 65 years. When McAfee joined in 2011, the credit union was doing well but found itself in a transition from “adolescence to adulthood.” The organization wasn’t number one in town. In fact, it wasn’t even second or third.

“Many smaller credit unions were either losing market share or merging,” McAfee says. “We had to decide if we wanted to merge or if we wanted to thrive.” To thrive, McAfee and his peers would have to take North Peace from passive to proactive by reinventing its brand and focusing on experiential services over products.

Upon his hire, the board and executives had already finished half of a strategic plan, but with McAfee’s input, they finished casting vision to make North Peace a preferred institution by 2020. Key initiatives of the plan include a culture change, a rebranding strategy, and a defined target audience.

Again fuelled by his belief in networking and continuous learning, McAfee found an executive learning program in the United States to build upon his cross-border experience. “I’ve been so intentional about connections because there is value in what you can bring in from the outside, and that was key to what I had to offer North Peace,” he says. “If we need support or have questions about a specific area that’s new to us, we have people that we can go out and talk to right away.”

Many financial institutions try to be all things to all people, and most have an aging demographic—but McAfee says that’s the old mind-set. In this new reality of mobile banking and hyperconnectivity, he knew North Peace would have to narrow its scope and serve a niche market by building ongoing relationships. By working with a third party and by mining data, North Peace executives realized they were serving small- and medium-enterprise businesses well. In fact, many business owners had their business accounts and multiple personal accounts at the credit union. “Our focus became to serve their needs and support their growth, and then a ripple effect goes out from there,” McAfee says. Now he’s leading a nine-month study to understand the life cycle of these businesses. The results will help North Peace redefine its suite of services.

North Peace will find organic growth when it moves away from products and zeroes in on the various elements of what a small- or medium-size business owner needs. The next step—once growth in existing markets solidifies—is geographic expansion. Simultaneous efforts are underway to rebrand the credit union while recruiting new talent to work in the far north.

When McAfee got into banking three decades ago, everything took a long time, and bankers focused on one transaction at a time. He’s watched, learned, and adjusted as he’s seen the industry go from transactional to relational. Those observations inform the way he guides North Peace’s renaissance. “You can’t keep your head down—you have to react,” McAfee says. “We used to launch a product and run away; now you have to do tests, launch something, monitor it, tweak it, and do it all over again.”

The changes can be hard to keep up with, and millennials are disrupting the space as consumer behaviour changes. But McAfee likes the battle, and in some ways, North Peace is winning. The credit union was the second in Canada to implement video-based teller machines for after-hours banking, for which it won a national innovation award. It’s just one of many ways the industry is changing, but McAfee is glad he stuck around.

“Banking is still a career where you can impact people and really help them in their lives,” he says. “I tell new recruits not to come here for what it’s been in the past; come here for what it will be.”